Amid questions about how it had converted an intended wood processing facility to a housing project, it has now been revealed that the company co-owned by controversial businessman Edul Ahmad had quietly approached the Chief Justice’s court last year and secured an order to alter the conditions attached to the sale of the land.
South American Woods Incorporated (SAW Inc) had filed an ex-parte summons on September 24 last year to amend the conditions stated in the transport for the land, to replace the industrial commercial clause to residential commercial. On October 2, 2013, Chief Justice (ag) Ian Chang delivered a ruling in chambers on the matter of transport, ordering that the Registrar of Deeds make the relevant amendments to transform the conditions attached to the transport.
The method of altering the conditions of the transport will raise questions as to whether the approach to the courts was the way in which this should have been done or whether these amendments need to be rectified by application to the lands and surveys body.
Defending the court move, Director of SAW Inc, Shareef Ahmad told Stabroek News on Thursday that since an agreement was reached in 2010, which resulted in the sale of the land by the Guyana Sugar Corporation via government-holding company NICIL in February 2011, the government had commissioned the Leonora Technical and Vocational Training Centre in December of the same year and the Leonora Secondary School in November of 2011.
Ahmad told Stabroek News that after purchasing the land, an application was sent in to the Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC) as well as to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approval of wood processing plans. He said “you have to seek permission from the NDC, make an application to the EPA and both were denied…they stated that the negative environmental impact, chemical waste, dust and noise,” as reasons for the denial. Ahmad added that the area surrounding the former GuySuCo Plantation Groenveldt, West Coast Demerara was residential, however when the 17 acres of land was purchased from GuySuCo for $80 million an agreement was entered into to have the area be zoned as industrial.
“We purchased the land with the intention [that] it would be an industrial complex… we were stuck with a piece of land in an industrial zone that we couldn’t use,” Ahmad noted. He said that between the time that the sale was made and the time SAW Inc wished to initiate the wood processing facility, the government had set up the two learning institutions. However, the government had given approval for the building of the Leonora Secondary School in 2010, long before SAW Inc would have purchased the nearby land and SAW should have been aware of this. Ahmad said he was upset that the subsequent requests for building approval in 2012 were formally rejected by the NDC and EPA in the beginning of 2013.
He said that at the time the value per acre of land was approximately US$25,000 while land was being sold in Eccles and Providence for US$18,000. He stated that the $80 million paid for the land far exceeded the value at the time.
Ahmad recalled that prior to the purchase, GuySuCo had advertised the land four times and no one had expressed interest. He said that the land was vacant and as a result it became a dumping ground and was in a state of disarray. “We paid on the basis that we were going to erect the wood facility,” Ahmad said, while adding that an additional US$250,000 was spent on drainage prior to the NDC’s and EPA’s rejection of their plan.
He said that as a result a decision was made to move to the courts to amend the terms governing the sale of the land.
Based on an ex-parte summons, filed on September 24, 2013, Justice Chang made an order on October 2nd 2013 authorising the Registrar of Deeds to amend the conditions stated in the transport, removing “the construction and operation of a wood processing facility with the option of future development in manufacturing, industrial” from the Plan and replacing it with “housing and or residential purposes on Block “R2” of Block R Plantation Groenveldt, West Coast Demerara.” A request was also made to completely delete the provision stating that a wood processing facility would need to commence first before any other potential land use.
Observers say it is strange that SAW did not disclose its failed applications to the EPA and the NDCs in the areas and appeal the decision. The observers say that given that it had invested heavily for the wood processing plant, SAW Inc should have lodged a determined plea. Such appeals have, in the past, resulted in decisions in favour of the applicants.
When Stabroek News had spoken to Edul Ahmad in May this year, he had said that “all the proper steps were followed to get to where we are right now.” He did not disclose the approach to the court.
When Stabroek News asked why the various entities responsible for the land were not made aware of the approach to the courts, such as the seller, GuySuCo; the agent, NICIL, and the regulatory authority, the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission, Ahmad noted that the matter was handled at the court and a ruling was made. He added that he was not aware that the other entities would need to be made aware.
In a subsequent statement, Ahmad noted that the “residential/commercial” land use has resulted in employment opportunities by ten times the original estimates through “the investment-spending multiplier effect.” He said, “The improvement to this land, which was used initially [as] a dumping ground before I purchased it, is clear and transparent. I am committed to create jobs and enhance the community.” He also dismissed allegations of impropriety in the deal as “frivolous” while observing that other investors are paying keen attention to the way the situation is unfolding.
Edul Ahmad, who is a friend of former president Bharrat Jagdeo, and a convicted real state fraudster in New York, was seen as the key person behind the wood processing project. Critics have said that the sale of the land seemed intended for a real estate venture. It is now left to be seen if the statutory bodies will intervene.
Meanwhile GuySuCo and NICIL are yet to formally begin the steps to investigate the sale of the land, which had restrictive covenants requiring the wood processing plant. GuySuCo Company Secretary Frederick Singh had stated in April that the probe of a reported breach of the restrictions on the use of land would be undertaken by both the state-owned corporation and NICIL. Singh had stated that in fact before any formal investigation, it was possible that SAW Inc would shelve the project due to the recent controversy surrounding the development project.
Singh had also noted that the state owned company would need to verify that the houses being constructed on that land had nothing to do with a wood processing facility.